`Wildly’ exotic specialties like deer penis pate, crisply fried locusts, seagull eggs, crisp pig ears, boiled snails and stallion semen shots make the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival in New Zealand, a culinary celebration like none other on the planet.
It’s a magic word — Hokitika. I mention the name of this beautiful town — on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island — to the banker seated next to me at the Christchurch airport lounge. His face lights up. His conversation becomes animated. What began in the little town of Hokitika in 1990, as a Wild Food Festival celebrating tastes of the West Coast, now has international travellers beating through the thickets of online websites, in pursuit of tickets. Held annually on a weekend in March, the event has clearly become something of a secular pilgrimage. The banker looks approvingly at my pants with the elastic waistband “You’re going to need them,” he says with a wink. “Pig snouts and lamb hearts have been added this year to the ever-growing menu — that includes old classics like West-Coast seafood and bush fare.”
With the idea of expanding my gastronomic comfort-zone, at a festival that’s all about exposing your palate and your mind to something new, I land at the XXS-sized Hokitika airport, fitting for a town whose population is just over 3000 people. If you come from even a remotely-prescriptive society, chances are that you’ll be bowled over by the easy, non-judgmental, flower-child energy that characterises even the first few minutes at Hokitika’s Cass Square, where the main festival events unfold. Even before I encounter any of the wild foods at the 48-stalls, my jaw’s dropped just about as far as it will go. Two men adorned as infants, sporting nothing more than larger-thanlife diapers, toddle past. Women, dressed as balloons, float along.
The Feral Fashion competition — where punters are encouraged to “wear their wild” flora, fauna, anything really — adds incentive to the diverse array of costumes. In fact, I appear to be the only person here who arrives as myself. In the hope of better bonding with both people and place, since I haven’t come dressed in foraged feathers or leaves, antlers or hides — popular clothing at this “wild” time of year — I head forth to sample the food.
My culinary adventure kicks off with what’s long been a welcome mat — Huhu grubs. A big beetle, endemic to New Zealand, it is — like most insects I’ve tried, especially when barbequed — expectedly succulent, crisp on the outside and buttery within. What’s refreshing is that there’s no euphemism or advertising that disguises what I’m about to put in my mouth. The stall owner points to the white larvae of the beetle, found in dead wood, just a few paces beyond the stall. The grubs eat the wood, which make them rich in protein. What to one man in one part of the world has served as a nourishing rural staple, to another is an exotic delicacy.
“You can’t be eating grubs all day,” says John, my guide, a son of the soil and a walking encyclopedia on all things West Coast, rebuking my greed. We’ve 47 more stalls to keep room for. The craving for whitebait (young freshwater fish), John tells me, is like no other. We follow our noses toward a group of Soroptomists, the century old international volunteer organisation that strives to improve the lot of women, who have set up stall, having converted 40 kilos of South Westland whitebait into patties. With pride written over their beaming faces, they admit that this special fish — which the locals vote for with their feet (queues are long here) — is a good source of fund-raising.
Further afield, in a stall appropriately called “I Deer You” — which encourages one to “Be Deering” — is the offer of shots of deer semen. At ten bucks a pop, it assures that I’ll feel pumped up. I wonder if one wouldn’t rather have a protein milkshake to feel a zesty-energy boost, but as reminded by the owners of the stall, I’m not here to live in my comfort zone; I’m here to have a very special experience. With the chemical precision of a doctor’s laboratory, terse bullet-point instructions are issued on how I am to consume the shot. I lie on a proffered camp-bed with my mouth wide open, ready to receive a healthful squirt.
A crowd gathers to watch this rite of passage, with the inevitable camaraderie that both food and the unusual attract. My eyes shut. The soundtrack to the experience is a voice informing me that what I will receive is the semen harvested from stags, first frozen in liquid nitrogen and then left to thaw out. It tastes to me like colourless-lemon. I don’t really feel the need for a sip of the sweet drink that follows, which is intended to change the taste. The next punter that reclines in the camp-bed requests that the semen shot be delivered onto her face, rather than in her mouth. To each her own.
The deer pizzle (penis) pate served on toast, I have to admit, tastes rather like a mix of leather and armpit to me. But this exception aside, almost everything else transports me into paroxysms of glee. Baby octopus skewers. Seagull eggs. Seaweed salad. Locusts crisply fried. Billy tea and scones. Crisp pig ears. Snails boiled, and then fried in garlic. Wild coffee made using camel’s milk and powdered locusts.
The people manning the stalls clearly don’t believe in limitations of any sort, and you can find just about any part of an animal served up. A dynamic duo with a food van goes the whole hog — quite literally, serving up improvised piggy snouts on a stick. For the faint of heart, there are plenty of the ancient and dexterous things that have long been done to pigs, also on offer. Think Mozzarella Pork Burgers, for starters.
The other common denominator to every experience here is that everything is more than it seems. A mountain oyster is not a mountain oyster. It is — as I soon learn — the euphemistic term for lamb testicles. Large groups of men appear to relish these “mountain oysters”, and I see them drinking copious quantities of beer to wash down the chewy-outside, soft-inside testicle meat — best had between sliced white bread.
In what’s set up to look like a bootlegging distillery, the Hokitika Rotary Club advertises its special Moonshine blend. The concoction — delivered straight into my mouth via a drenching gun — makes me feel light-headed and altogether delighted with life on this planet. What goes into this potent brew is a closely-guarded secret. I stroll away into more unusual encounters. Men dressed as a knot of nuns, women dressed as bacchanalian Romans dancing orgiastically, little old ladies prancing forth in mini-skirts, babies in 60’s wigs I understand – but a mouse scampering around a woman’s neck takes me more time to digest. It’s not, however a hallucination, born of the legendary amount of moonshine that I’ve consumed.
It turns out that the woman with the mouse has driven in to Hokitika from Christchurch and is showcasing an Animal Farm, as part of the Kids’ Korner. In fact, whatever you’re in the mood for, inclusive Hokitika will probably have it at this time of year, with bells on. Breaking up all the nose-to-tail eating and drinking are comedy shows, cooking demonstrations, acrobatic acts and roving entertainers who keep the stage aflame all day.
Salmonella Dub, a reggae band, is on board as the headline act, both for the festival and the after-party. What’s clear is that although these events may be drawing an international audience, so deeply are they entrenched in local talent and food-culture that they act as a remarkable antidote to the globalised.
By the time the sun is washed over by a giant rain-cloud that evening, most punters have ingested a significant volume of specialty “Liquid Hot pants” and “Kiwi Bomb” — a classic cocktail floating around. It’s clear that beer and other NZ brews, plentifully available, lubricate and aid the journey towards the sampling of unusual foods. I find myself agreeing to try the fisheye shot, at a place appropriately named The Last Supper. Immersed in a blue jelly, with its eye gazing directly at me, I quake at the final swallow. As animated as the energy of this mass of people, and the events that spill out into the streets all weekend, is the landscape of the West Coast in which they unfold — all dramatic coastline and dense rainforest, glow-worm trail and river, lake and mountain. What however is more attractive than the scenery and the experimental foods on display, is the community that gathers here, with an unself-conscious energy — celebrating life as it is, not as it should be.